So, physics is a fron­tier sci­ence. It sits at the very bound­ary and lim­its of a par­tic­u­lar type of human inquiry, one that con­cerns itself with the ori­gins of exis­tence and every­thing that it con­tains. Our uni­verse, for exam­ple. And as a fron­tier sci­ence and a human endeav­or, it is an enter­prise. And there are many dif­fer­ent types of char­ac­ters involved in this enter­prise. And as a way for me to intro­duce them to you, I’m going to invoke a metaphor for our search for the ulti­mate phys­i­cal truth, as it were. And the metaphor involves a land­scape.

So the idea is we’re in a land­scape, we’re sur­round­ed by moun­tains, sep­a­rat­ed by val­ley, obscured by fog. And we’re try­ing to find the high­est sum­mit. So there’s a par­tic­u­lar type of char­ac­ter that the physi­cist and author Lee Smolin and iden­ti­fied as a sum­mit seek­er, or a moun­taineer, some­one that is imme­di­ate­ly next to a tall moun­tain and decides, Right, I’m going to go up.” 

There’s also a par­tic­u­lar type of char­ac­ter known as a val­ley cross­er, or an explor­er, who thinks to them­selves, Well, there’s a very tall moun­tain next to me, but per­haps three val­leys over…I can’t real­ly see what’s over there, but maybe there’s an even taller moun­tain. So I’m going to go cross into the unknown.”

There are entre­pre­neurs. There are char­ac­ters who have an appetite for risk. Who can inspire and drum up peo­ple to go along with them on any par­tic­u­lar adven­ture. There are poets. These char­ac­ters don’t care where they end up. They just enjoy the art and the craft for its own sake. There are lit­er­ary crit­ics. There are peo­ple who have strong opin­ions about the way things are going, about the state of the art, and seek to influ­ence oth­er people’s opin­ions.

There are crafts­men and craftswomen, peo­ple who are so tal­ent­ed at a par­tic­u­lar aspect of this enter­prise that watch­ing them do their thing becomes a thing unto itself, an art form unto itself. There are engi­neers, who get a kick out of solv­ing prob­lems with a min­i­mal set of resources in the clever­est way pos­si­ble. And like in any field, there are also politi­cians. And the less you speak about them, the bet­ter.

And if I were to iden­ti­fy myself in one of these, I would say that I aspire towards being some­thing in between a crafts­man and a val­ley cross­er. Although in prac­tice my val­ley cross­ing has been almost reck­less, that it’s not been par­tic­u­lar­ly good for my career. Although I sur­vived and I’m here to tell you the tale.

So, how does one prac­ti­cal­ly even go about this enter­prise of dis­cov­ery? So let’s begin with val­ley cross­ing. And in par­tic­u­lar let’s begin with an extreme ver­sion of it, which is you go across sev­er­al val­leys, and you find some­thing real­ly remark­able that real­ly shat­ters people’s view of how things ought to be done, and real­ly rede­fines a new par­a­digm. And the way you go about that is very sim­ple. Be a genius. Or be very lucky.

Now, I don’t mean for you to take that too lit­er­al­ly. I think genius is a myth that’s often cre­at­ed after the fact, a leg­end that is rewrit­ten after the fact. But nev­er­the­less it is true that in almost every­thing we do, we are the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of these var­i­ous remark­able flash­es of insight that now allow us take effort­less short­cuts through what­ev­er it is that we’re doing.

So, one that is par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant today is Einstein real­iz­ing that grav­i­ty is set apart as a force from all the oth­er forces in nature. Because what grav­i­ty real­ly is isn’t…well it is a force, but the way it acts is rather remark­able. Einstein real­ized that space­time wasn’t this sta­t­ic are­na in which things just sort of hap­pened. Einstein real­ized that in fact space­time itself is a thing, it’s an elas­tic medi­um. And it gets dis­tort­ed by mate­r­i­al objects. 

And apple sinking into a gridded plain, distorting the squares around itself

So if this apple were the sun, the sun is dis­tort­ing the fab­ric of space­time around it such that if any­thing tried to move in a straight line, which it ordi­nar­i­ly would do effort­less­ly, it might sort of take a curved path. It might even get trapped in a cir­cle going round and round the sun. Like the Earth. And this exam­ple is par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant today because at this very moment, in fact, there is a press con­fer­ence hap­pen­ing in Washington DC where the LIGO col­lab­o­ra­tion is most like­ly going to announce the dis­cov­ery of rip­ples in this fab­ric of space­time, grav­i­ta­tion­al waves. So it’s a very his­toric for physics. And I con­sid­er this insight to be one of the great­est leaps a human mind has ever made.

And then per­haps on a more prac­ti­cal lev­el, on a day-to-day, no one’s going about mak­ing rev­o­lu­tion hap­pen every day. In fact it’s not always the con­text for some­thing like that to hap­pen. So on a day-to-day basis in the day-to-day process of sum­mit seek­ing, the more sort of prac­ti­cal thing of try­ing to solve prob­lems, to dis­cov­er new things with­in an exist­ing par­a­digm. It’s not that every­thing hap­pens in a vac­u­um. Everything that we do, whether it’s implic­it­ly acknowl­edged or explic­it­ly acknowl­edged, bor­rows from these flash­es of insight. We stand on the shoul­ders of giants, as Newton him­self pref­aced in his Principia Mathematica.

So if you were to step back and ask what the meta-process of this would be, if some­how there were a man­u­al of dis­cov­ery, it would con­tain the entries of all the peo­ple that have gone before. Einstein would’ve come along and writ­ten some­thing. Descartes will have come along and writ­ten some­thing. And Newton would’ve come along and writ­ten some­thing. Darwin would’ve come along and writ­ten some­thing. And whether we acknowl­edge it or we don’t, we are the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this learned met­a­log­ic.

And if this thing were actu­al­ly a book, its title would be called Heuristics, or the art of inven­tion. And instead of star­ing at each new prob­lem like it were a blank page, you could instead begin by ask­ing your­self what is essen­tial about the prob­lem? What can be ignored about the prob­lem. What is super­flu­ous detail? Does this look like anoth­er, eas­i­er prob­lem? And could you solve that sim­pler prob­lem?

So I want you to pay atten­tion to this, because this is actu­al­ly the sort of meta-process that the sci­en­tif­ic method actu­al­ly invokes. Are you look­ing at the prob­lem the right way? Maybe it’s not even a prob­lem. Maybe the bug is a fea­ture. Are you try­ing too hard? Perhaps you’ve been work­ing on some­thing for years and years and years, and maybe that’s telling you some­thing. Has that prob­lem already been solved? And I think this is some­thing that a lot of peo­ple can under­stand, because it’s often the case that peo­ple look to nature for inspi­ra­tion for cer­tain prob­lems in design. And I think the most dra­mat­ic exam­ple of that is some­thing that prob­a­bly brought a lot of you here, which is when the Wright Brothers real­ize that in try­ing to make this air­plane object they were try­ing to invent fly, they need­ed to bor­row a design that they saw from bird’s wings. That prob­lem had already been solved by nature.

So, the sci­en­tif­ic method was per­fect­ed in the cru­cible of nat­ur­al sci­ence, and physics in par­tic­u­lar. And an old pro­fes­sor of mine once told me that a good the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist is intrin­si­cal­ly a lazy per­son. And so these heuris­tics of ignor­ing super­flu­ous detail, sim­pli­fy­ing the prob­lem to its barest essen­tials, maybe even mak­ing a car­i­ca­ture out of it, solv­ing that sim­pler prob­lem. If you can’t solve that sim­pler prob­lem, solve an even sim­pler prob­lem. This actu­al­ly works in physics. Because the uni­verse is intrin­si­cal­ly a lazy place. 

Structures that we see in one par­tic­u­lar con­text in one par­tic­u­lar scale are repro­duced across vast­ly dif­fer­ent con­texts and vast­ly dif­fer­ent scales. And this is telling us some­thing. That the uni­verse prefers, it has this pen­chant for this under­ly­ing sim­plic­i­ty and econ­o­my of descrip­tion. If you like, the uni­verse out­sources the mechan­ics of its exis­tence to a very small set of uni­ver­sal­i­ty class­es of phe­nom­e­non. And none is so dra­mat­ic, I think, than the fol­low­ing fact, that if you take any sys­tem close enough to equi­lib­ri­um… And by equi­lib­ri­um I mean if you just leave it there it stays that way for­ev­er, its ground state, its low­est ener­gy con­fig­u­ra­tion. Any sys­tem close enough to equi­lib­ri­um can be described, once you real­ly break down the way you describe it in terms of math­e­mat­ics, as a col­lec­tion of inter­act­ing sim­ple har­mon­ic oscil­la­tors. Like springs. This is just some­thing that is. The col­lec­tive motion of which look like waves.

So, by this I mean net­works of neu­rons in your visu­al cor­tex try­ing to under­stand or process an image. Flocks of birds. Crystals. Traffic flow. All of this can be boiled down to the same iden­ti­cal math­e­mat­ics. It’s a remark­able fact. Waves on water are very vis­cer­al exam­ple of this. We all see this, right. So, water is a thing. It exists. And lit­tle tiny dis­tur­bances on water are waves. These are very non­lin­ear waves, but if you imag­ine they were small enough, they’d be quite lin­ear. And these local­ized exci­ta­tions car­ry ener­gy around.

What if I told you that fun­da­men­tal par­ti­cle physics is noth­ing more than that? That par­ti­cles are like waves, local­ized exci­ta­tions on an under­ly­ing quan­tum field. So, there’s this thing called the elec­tron field, and elec­trons are local­ized exci­ta­tions just like waves on the ocean, float­ing around bounc­ing off of each oth­er. Solar quarks. Quarks are exci­ta­tions of a fun­da­men­tal quark field. Photons, glu­ons, all the fun­da­men­tal par­ti­cles you can imag­ine, are described by the same under­ly­ing math­e­mat­ics.

And if you took this to its log­i­cal extreme, almost absurd extreme if you will, there’s a can­di­date the­o­ry for the uni­ver­sal called string the­o­ry, which states that there aren’t these sep­a­rate fields. There’s only one field, the string field. And its local­ized exci­ta­tions are one-dimensional extend­ed objects—strings—whose dif­fer­ent notes are the dif­fer­ent par­ti­cles that we see. And whose fun­da­men­tal note is actu­al­ly just a dis­tor­tion of space­time itself. And alter­nat­ing the next high­est notes are dif­fer­ent force car­ri­ers, and dif­fer­ent charged par­ti­cles. So, physi­cists makes fun of them­selves when they real­ize this. And they say that physics is that of all human expe­ri­ence that could be boiled down to study of sim­ple har­mon­ic oscil­la­tors. That’s it. So we’re not very clever.

So let’s say there is some­thing that we can­not explain. Within the work­ing heuris­tics of a prac­tic­ing physi­cist, there’s a par­tic­u­lar type of of paid adven­ture, a fund­ed adven­ture, if you like, that I just find remark­able. And it’s called phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy. And to me it’s a remark­able thing. It’s very hum­bling thing that myself and my col­leagues are paid by your tax­es to go forth and do this for a liv­ing. Which is that if we go around and we see some­thing that we can­not explain in the uni­verse (galax­ies mov­ing in a way that there seems to be some miss­ing mat­ter, for exam­ple) you are enti­tled to break the laws of physics or bend them in any con­ve­nient way such that you end up explain­ing what you see. To invent a par­ti­cle and call it dark mat­ter, for exam­ple.

And in order to give you anoth­er con­crete exam­ple of this, I first need to teach you a lit­tle bit about quan­tum mechan­ics in a slide, if it’s pos­si­ble, so bear with me.

I apol­o­gize for the equa­tion. I promise I’ll explain it. 

The quan­tum mechan­i­cal uni­verse is a very strange uni­verse. Our day-to-day intu­ition about our rela­tion­ships with space and time are very dif­fer­ent. Measuring where some­thing is, and how fast it is going are not com­munt­ing oper­a­tions. So either you’re look­ing at me on the stage or you’re star­ing at your com­put­er screen or your iPhone or what­ev­er it is. But you’re look­ing at some­thing, and in doing that (Let’s say you’re look­ing at me.), you are iden­ti­fy­ing where I am (I’m stand­ing right here.) and how fast I’m going. (I’m stand­ing still.)

But I could have done that oper­a­tion in reverse. I could have first looked at how fast I was going, maybe with a speed gun or some­thing. And then tried to fig­ure out where I was. And ordi­nar­i­ly you’d think that the order of those two oper­a­tions shouldn’t mat­ter. And intu­itive­ly, at the scale at which we exist, they don’t. But in the quan­tum mechan­i­cal uni­verse, that is not true. The order of oper­a­tion mat­ters. Which is telling us some­thing very remark­able. That mea­sur­ing where some­thing is and how fast it’s going can­not be described by num­bers. Because num­bers com­mute. You mul­ti­ply them in a par­tic­u­lar, you switch the order, you get the same thing. So the fact that they don’t com­mute means that the dif­fer­ence is not zero, and so they’re no longer described by the usu­al num­bers.

And in fact they’re described by these com­pli­cat­ed things called oper­a­tors, but we don’t need to get into them. And this irre­ducible uncer­tain­ty in deter­min­ing where and when some­thing is, is set by this thing called the quan­tum. So what that’s telling you is that it’s impos­si­ble to actu­al­ly local­ize some­thing, because if you could, you’d be able to make a state­ment, I know some­body is there and they’re not going any­where,” in con­tra­dic­tion to the laws of quan­tum mechan­ics.

So that leads to all sorts of strange­ness. Particles act like waves. Waves act like par­ti­cles. And in real­i­ty they’re nei­ther. What’s hap­pen­ing is we are mon­keys with brains. We’ve evolved the per­cep­tion of the world around us because that’s what just hap­pened through evo­lu­tion­ary neces­si­ty. But at the very fun­da­men­tal scale, the uni­verse doesn’t agree with our monkey-with-brain con­cepts, and they com­plete­ly break down. Things can exist in a super­po­si­tion of quan­tum states. Cats can be both dead and/or alive. So the very gram­mar and boolean log­ic of ordi­nary intu­ition com­plete­ly fails. So the quan­tum mechan­i­cal uni­verse is a very strange one. But we under­stand it through math­e­mat­ics. But we are very bad at explain­ing it through our lan­guage. This is one of the many ways in which lan­guage is lim­it­ing our under­stand­ing of the uni­verse.

So now it turns out that when we try to make grav­i­ty fit with our quan­tum mechan­i­cal descrip­tion of par­ti­cles as lit­tle waves float­ing around, there are all sorts of infini­ties that we don’t know how to deal with in our cal­cu­la­tions. And so the rea­son for those infini­ties is in fact that space­time is infi­nite­ly divis­i­ble. So that means between here and here there’s always a point in between. And no mat­ter how small or how short a dis­tance I look, there’s always a point in between. And that caus­es prob­lems in our equa­tions.

So, a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal thing to do would be, how about we fix that? How about we break that? And then see what hap­pens. Shoot first, ask lat­er. So, what if space­time itself sat­is­fied a ver­sion of the uncer­tain­ty prin­ci­ple? Imagine between us there is an imag­i­nary plane. And I’m point­ing to a point right here. So how do I know to tell you that this point is here? I would first have to tell you how far along the X axis (if you allow me to tell you that this direc­tion is X) it is, and how far up it is. So the point here is this much on the X direc­tion, this much on the Y direc­tion. But it also is this much up along the Y direc­tion, and this much along the X direc­tion. That’s our usu­al geom­e­try.

But if we take the les­son from quan­tum mechan­ics and say, what if space time itself is intrin­si­cal­ly quan­tum? What if that oper­a­tion did not com­mute? And you’d end up in a dif­fer­ent place? That means the idea of a point is mean­ing­less. It is a fic­tion that you’ve cre­at­ed because you’re a mon­key with a brain at a large large scale. Whereas fun­da­men­tal­ly, points don’t exist. And this geo­met­ri­cal struc­ture has bro­ken many of the rules of math­e­mat­ics. There’s a lot of math­e­mati­cians that would’ve been very upset at this until they fig­ured out how to deal with it.

And so if you would imag­ine what space looks like at that very small scale, it goes from this infi­nite­ly divis­i­ble con­tin­u­um into this chaot­ic quan­tum foam. Points are just not resolv­able. Once you try to resolve some­thing, it flips and becomes some­thing else. So here, there, now, lat­er, are all mixed up into this cloud of pos­si­bil­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty. So, if we were to scale this up to the larg­er scales and imag­ine some­one walk­ing down a flight of stairs, they might appear as a jagged set of per­sis­tences, depend­ing on how you’re look­ing at the scene. 

So, shoot first, ask lat­er, okay? So we said, Well, let’s just hack space­time and make it quan­tum.” But as physi­cists, we have to actu­al­ly ask the ques­tion, is it true? Or is this just a game we’re play­ing on a piece of paper? So, the ener­gies we need to probe this physics… To put this into con­text, some­where over there, like sev­en, ten kilo­me­ters over there, is the Large Hadron Collider. It is twen­ty five kilo­me­ters in cir­cum­fer­ence. To probe the physics that we would need to test the quan­tum­ness of geom­e­try, we would have to build a par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor the size of the galaxy. So I think it’s fair to say that no gov­ern­ment is going to fund that any­time soon.

So, we do the next best thing and we sift through the evi­dence left over from the Big Bang itself, and you’re look­ing at it right there on that slide. It is rel­ic radi­a­tion left over from when the uni­verse was a very hot, dense place. So, once upon a time, the uni­verse was such a hot place that light and mat­ter couldn’t breaks free. They were just bounc­ing off of each oth­er. But there was a moment when the uni­verse was 378,000 years old that sud­den­ly it cooled enough that light just broke free. And there’s was this flash. The uni­verse sud­den­ly became trans­par­ent. And that’s were look­ing at. And it is a pic­ture of a vibrat­ing plas­ma, and it is lit­er­al­ly an ultra­sound of the uni­verse when it was a baby.

So, you don’t need to look at some­thing to under­stand how it sounds like. And by lis­ten­ing to some­thing, you can actu­al­ly tell a lot about it. If you were to shut your eyes and some­one were to play you a vio­lin play­ing mid­dle A:

It would sound some­thing like that. And you didn’t need me to even tell you what that was. You could’ve been blind­fold­ed and you’d rec­og­nize imme­di­ate­ly that it was a vio­lin because your brain took that sig­nal and broke it down. Your audio cor­tex to that sig­nal and broke it down in terms of fun­da­men­tal har­mon­ics.

So the loud­est note is of course mid­dle A. The next loud­est note is also A, octaves up. And so this thing is a Fourier trans­form. It’s decom­pos­ing the sound of the vio­lin into all its fun­da­men­tal har­mon­ics. And from that you can tell it’s a vio­lin. You can tell its shape. You can tell a lot about it.

So, if we took that vibrat­ing plas­ma and imag­ined we were back then when the uni­verse was 378,000 years old, and we stuck our head into that pri­mor­dial goop, it would sound a bit like this:

Sounds like white noise, but again, we notice if we did the same thing that we did to the vio­lin, there’s one par­tic­u­lar note that’s quite loud. And there’s a cou­ple of har­mon­ics. And the third har­mon­ic is a lot loud­er than it should be, and that actu­al­ly tells us that the uni­verse is most­ly made up of this thing called dark ener­gy, and a lit­tle bit of this thing called dark mat­ter.

And if you were to ask where is the evi­dence, if there was any evi­dence that space­time would have any grain­i­ness asso­ci­at­ed with it, we would expect to see lit­tle extra rip­ples on the right of this plot that we don’t see, to the accu­ra­cy which we mea­sured. So there­fore this idea wasn’t true. No dice. No rewards for me and my col­lab­o­ra­tors. But that’s how phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy works. You break the laws of physics to try and explain some­thing that you think might be going on, and then you don’t care about the con­se­quences until you’re proved wrong. 

So, we have a very sim­ple mod­el of the ear­ly uni­verse. It explains every­thing that we’ve seen around us, but it begs for deep­er expla­na­tion and we don’t real­ly know what that expla­na­tion is. So it’s very pleas­ing that we under­stand so much. It’s also very frus­trat­ing that we can’t see what is real­ly the thing behind the Big Bang. It could be that the under­ly­ing pic­ture is far beyond what we’ve imag­ined, and it’s a sit­u­a­tion summed up very neat­ly by Niels Bohr when he quipped to a col­league that, Your the­o­ry is crazy, but it’s not crazy not to be true.” Keep try­ing.

So, I have noth­ing more. I hope I’ve giv­en you a lit­tle taste of how the met­a­log­ic of dis­cov­ery works in physics, and a lit­tle sort of like the men­tal hacks that we use to try and get fur­ther. And I think the thing I’ve learned, num­ber one, is that there are just absolute­ly no rules. You are on your own. But, you can pig­gy­back off of what oth­er peo­ple have learned for you on your behalf. And I think the thing that I’d like to leave you with that I think is the most impor­tant to me, is that the thing that I’ve noticed the most about the sci­en­tists that I respect and admire the most is that they’re will­ing to intro­duce noise into their process to allow them to make asso­ci­a­tions that they wouldn’t have oth­er­wise. And that have a very strong mis­chie­vous streak. They like to go on adven­tures.

Thank you very much.


Sophie Lamparter: Thank you very much, Subodh. That was fascinating. How do you create noise in your universe?

Subodh Patil: Well, I think I do a lot of reading that's not related to my work. I have a guitar next to my side whenever I'm doing a calculation. I always pick it up. I walk around a lot. But I mean there's other things you could do. I try to just sort of get away from hanging out with the "crowd," as it were. I'm sort of allergic to the sort of…the herd. And I try to be as far away to the periphery as possible.

Lamparter: So, Subodh and I met about three years ago because he was collaborating at—you know CERN has this artist in residency program. And so he was the scientific partner of a sound artist, Bill Fontana, who is actually from San Francisco. And we're speaking about antidisciplinarity. Do you think those conversations are kind of helpful also for your work, or at least help you to create noise, or…

Patil: No, they're amazing. I think of one of the things that disappoints me about the modern world is that we sort of ghettoized our brains so much in terms of these little microcommunities, and people rarely cross over them. And hanging out with someone like Bill, for example, was very nice because I imagine well, maybe this is what it would've been like to have been in Paris in the 1920s, hanging around drinking coffees in a cafe and comparing my notes of my calculations with a Cubist. That's what it felt like.

Lamparter: Yeah. That's what we're here for today, right? Okay, thank you so much.

Further Reference

Enter the Anti-Disciplinary Space session details at the Lift16 site.

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